What Parents Need to Know About Mobile Social Apps

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It was probably inevitable. Now that 70 percent of teens are friends with their parents on Facebook, some are looking for less supervised places to socialize. A recent report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that even though most teens feel obligated to maintain a presence on Facebook, many expressed “waning enthusiasm.” Their reasons? The site has been “colonized” by adults, and there’s too much drama.

“Teens are looking for a place they can call their own,” says Danah Boyd, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. “Rather than all flocking en masse to a different site, they’re fragmenting across apps.”

Since teens use a variety of social media apps, supervision becomes more difficult. The classic advice — “keep the computer in a public space” — is hopelessly quaint, especially for teens who socialize on cellphones or smartphones. One response is to use monitoring software that will alert parents anytime a child sends or receives an inappropriate message.

Although surveillance may be a good short-term fix for some kids, it can obscure a long-term goal: raising kids who use good judgment about social media. These kids resist the temptation to behave poorly just because they are online, and they know how to protect themselves when they encounter bullies, trolls and other online predators. How do you equip your child with those essential life skills? Here are a few suggestions:

Limit social networking of any kind for middle school students. Pre-adolescents are learning how to manage relationships and the process isn’t always pretty. Middle school kids are very aware of themselves and not very aware of others. Even the nicest kids say mean things — and are devastated if someone says something mean to them. Being part of social media compounds the damage since clumsy comments, ill-advised fashion choices and failed attempts at humor are permanent and more widely available.

Check the apps on your child’s phone. Review the apps on your child’s phone every time you pay the phone bill. Ask questions that will help your child think critically about social apps: How did you find out about the app? Does it do what you want it to do? What information does it collect about you? Does it broadcast your location? How much time do you spend using it? How could it be improved? What kind of community does it create?

Be aware of the connection between social media and self esteem. For many young people, social media intensifies the pressure to be popular. They may obsess about how many followers they have, how many likes a particular post attracts or parties they didn’t attend. Parents can’t micromanage this part of a child’s life. Teens learn by making social mistakes. At the same time, parents can buffer the impact of social media by giving kids plenty of positive attention, supporting healthy offline friendships and pointing out popularity’s limited shelf life.

Teach self-protection strategies. Talk to your child about how he or she can respond to mean or crude comments with tactics similar to those he or she would use offline. If possible, ignore bad behavior. The other person may just be having a really terrible day. Don’t respond in kind because that is likely to escalate the problem. Whenever possible, use humor to defuse conflict. Take advantage of privacy settings to block people who are always mean or negative. If a post is threatening, save a copy and share it with a trusted adult.

Be sure your child knows you have his back. Many teens don’t talk to their parents about social media problems for fear that parents will overreact. Let your children know you have confidence in them to handle most situations, but you want to know about any online interactions that feel scary or overwhelming. If a child comes to you with an online problem, resist the urge to take charge. Instead, help your child think through how he or she wants to handle the situation. What is motivating the person who is causing the problem? Is this a relationship that matters to your child? Does he or she have offline contact with the person? Most important, listen!

The social skills young people need to succeed with social media aren’t all that different from the social skills they will need in the offline world. As a parent, you can help your children stay focused on the big picture. What kind of person does your child want to be and what kinds of friends will support him or her in becoming that type of person? For kids who keep those goals clearly in mind, the app they are using at the moment won’t much matter.

A Dozen Social Apps that Should be on Every Parent’s Radar

All of these social media apps can be downloaded on smartphones. They allow users to upload photos, videos and/or messages, which can, in turn, attract approval or comments from other people. Most apps have some sort of privacy system that allows users to make their posts public or available only to approved followers. Teens should be encouraged to use these controls with the understanding that as soon as something is online, it’s no longer private.


Gifboom: Very short videos.

Instagram: Photos and videos.

Keek. Limits audience for videos to 36 friends.

Kik. Messaging with photos and videos.

Path. Limits audience to 150 friends.

Pheed. A social network for the ”wild at heart.”

Reddit. Links and texts. Especially popular with teenage boys.

Snapchat. Photos self-destruct after a few seconds.

Tumblr. Blogging with photos, audio and videos.

Twitter. A way to post updates in 140 characters or less.

Viddy. Videos in 15 seconds or less.

 Vine. 6-second videos.


Carolyn Jabs raised three computer savvy kids, including one with special needs, and is working on a book about constructive responses to conflict. Learn more at growing-up-online.com.

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